Monthly Archives: July 2009

We Have To Add The Value

You may have watched the video of the Dean who explained his rationale for removing computers from the classrooms at his school. His primary concern was that faculty would simply show PowerPoint slides and deliver boring lectures to accompany them. While I don’t entirely agree with his perspectives on the merits of teaching “naked”, I definitely understand his concerns about the future of instructional technology in higher education and the role that faculty play in making smart choices about which technologies they select and how they use them. I see a similar challenge facing academic librarians.

My point isn’t about the pros and cons of using technology in the classroom. I think that academic librarians are totally on board with the concept of using technology purposefully for teaching and learning. I certainly hope we have gotten away from subjecting our students to PowerPoint slide shows over which we drone on about the virtues of appropriate database search techniques. Now that many of us are teaching in hands-on classrooms we can get more creative with methods for activating the students and really engaging them in learning how to think critically about their research responsibilities, how to work effectively with their fellow students, and even how to efficiently capture, store, retrieve and cite their resources. Of course, like the Chronicle article states, there are students who don’t want to be activated. They would prefer to just sit there and have a librarian-instructor talk at them for 50 minutes, which they can tune out and then get on with what really interests them. So just like our faculty colleagues we are challenged to leverage technology that gets students thinking, working, and maybe even enjoying their time in the classroom with us.

But here’s my point. I get what Dean Jose Bowen is telling us about being overly dependent on technology, especially when the focus is on the technology rather than the educator in the room. It’s all about adding value to the learning process. He is spot on when he says that students can now go anywhere to simply hear a lecture by a talking head that is attached to a series of slides. That describes a good deal of online learning and open education resource experience. You go to a web site or a course delivery system and just tune in to a lecture/presentation. But where’s the added value that comes from the dialogue between the teacher and the student? I believe what Bowen is really afraid of losing at his school is what makes the learning experience truly unique – the engagement between the instructor and the learner.

Academic librarians need to be mindful of the same challenge. We know that while we offer high quality information resources, our students and faculty can obtain information from a wide variety of resources. And there are times when they are accessing our subscription content through free search engines and are not aware that the content is delivered by the library. Those are well known issues. If the boundaries between information sources are becoming increasingly blurry to the end user, what is it that distinguishes what the academic library does for them? Finding the answer to that question is part of the challenge we face, just as our faculty colleagues will need to make clear to future students the value that they add to the learning process. Otherwise why bother with the huge investment in a traditional college education. I will continue to be writing about these challenges and possible solutions here and in other venues. I hope you’ll be a part of the conversation in helping us all to figure out how we add value for our students and faculty.

Faculty Blog Round-Up: Writing Books

At the peak of summer, many faculty are in deep research mode, especially with longer projects, like books, that require the kind of travel or in-depth work they can’t schedule during the semester.  Here’s an overview of the book-writing process from the inside

Dr. Crazy, an anonymous literature professor, is beginning to ponder her topic.

Anthropologist Auto Ethnographer is in the throes of research - research that goes to show why sometimes we just need the original print texts.

Flavia, an anonymous professor of renaissance literature, is substantially revising her dissertation - and has come to some interesting realizations about her book-in-progress.  Check out the comments here, too.

Notorious Ph.D., a historian, is revising and ambivalent about her readers’ feedback.

Finally, John Holbo, a philosopher at National University in Singapore, has just published a book on Plato (with translation by Belle Waring).  This post is interesting for two reasons: it’s an experiment in simultaneous free e-publishing with a print book for sale, as well as reminding us how the scholarly conversation doesn’t end with the book’s publication.

Something Is Better Than Nothing

As you read and learn more about design a basic principle appears again and again. Design for simplicity. In fact one hallmark of great design is that it makes the complex simple. That said, as Garr Reynolds put it in a recent presentation, simplicity should not be confused with simplistic. Simplistic is about dumbing things down because it is easier for us. Simplicity is about creating clarity where there previously was confusion. The latter best serves the end user.

I got to thinking about this after attending a recent webcast presentation sponsored by Library Journal and Serials Solution. The point of the webcast, Returning the Researcher to the Library, was to share ideas about how librarians could create a better return on their investment in electronic resources. With all the money we spend on electronic resources, who doesn’t want to create greater awareness about their availability and gather evidence that documents how students and faculty use the library’s e-resources for their research. The presenters shared some good ideas and research findings. One of the speakers shared her library’s experience with a recently implemented catalog overlay – you’d know it from its graphic/visual search functionality. After examining search logs the presenter pointed out that searches getting zero results in the old catalog did get results in the new catalog. What was the difference? The simplicity of the new overlay.

A good question was asked. Was there any analysis of the results from the searches in the new catalog? In other words, there were results but were they relevant? Other than one example involving a search that looked more like something a librarian rather than an end user concocted, the answer was no – there was no analysis of the results. All we really know is that the new, simpler interface provided some results whereas the old, complicated interface provided no results. That lead to the conclusion that from the user’s perspective “it’s better to find something than nothing”. Do you agree with that? Isn’t is possible that the something you’ll find is so irrelevant or worthless that it may be worse than finding nothing. Or the something found may only be one miniscule sample from a much greater body of information that will be completely ignored. “Oh great. I found something. Now I’m done with my research”. What you miss can often be much more significant than what you find. The results only show there were zero result searches in the old catalog. It tells you nothing about whether or not the searcher tried again or went and asked for help. In some cases finding nothing may lead the searcher to re-think the search and achieve improved results. Maybe you think I’m guilty of wishful thinking here.

I suppose what mostly had me puzzled was the suggestion that simple search interfaces, rather than instruction for research skill building, is the ultimate solution to better searching and research results. It’s true that at large research institutions it will be difficult to reach every student with instruction, and there are some strategies to tackle that problem. But here’s my issue with the assumption that simple search interfaces are the solution. I don’t care how simple the interface is, if a student lacks the ability to think critically about the search problem and construct a respectable search query it doesn’t matter what sort of simple overlay you offer, the results are still likely to be poor. Garbage in is still garbage out. That’s why library instruction still has considerable potential for improving student research in the long run.

That said, I find it difficult to argue against the potential value of catalog and database search systems that will find something that can at least get someone started in their research. These simplified systems also offer potential for resource discovery, and we certainly want students and faculty to become aware of what may now be hidden collections. Despite the shortcomings we need to further explore these systems. At least one system I examined at ALA allows librarians to customize the relevancy ranking to continually fine tune the quality of the search results. But let’s not proceed to dismantle library instruction just yet. We need to constantly remind ourselves that creating simplicity is not the same as making search systems simplistic. Research is an inherently complex task. Instruction can help learners to master and appreciate complexity. Then, on their own they can achieve clarity when encountering complex research problems that require the use of complicated search systems. That, I think, is what we mean when we talk about lifelong learning.

I’ll Take the Humanities for Ten Thousand

Jennifer Howard of the Chron (subscription required) offers a preview of a study commissioned by the National Humanities Alliance and funded by Mellon which looked at the back office costs of flagship journals published by scholarly societies (many of them in the social sciences, oddly) and concluded that they actually cost more than STM journals. Articles are longer, and rejection rates in these disciplines is higher, meaning more costs for handling the gatekeeping functions.

This does not surprise me given that STM authors often pay page charges, and they pay on the other end, too; one biologist recently told me that she had to pay $250 to a publisher get a .pdf of an article she’d written. She was surprised to learn that this isn’t standard practice in other fields. The full-color and expensive paper often used in STM journals isn’t as common in humanities and social sciences journals, but those journals also don’t get significant ad revenue from corporations published on glossy full-color pages.

And the fact is, there’s a lot of money sloshing around STM research that hyperinflates its prices. Grants fund research, and so can also fund publications bills. (Your tax dollars at work!) And STM information has a “street value” that doesn’t exist for the humanities or for most social science research. The people with deep pockets in medical, engineering, and other applied science fields don’t buy or publish in journals that discuss Latin American history, theological views on compassion, or examinations of the effectiveness of mixed-income housing replacements for public housing projects.

What does surprise me is the cost of producing these flagship journals. According to the study:

It cost an average of $9,994 in 2007 to publish an article in one of the eight journals analyzed, compared with an average of $2,670 for STM journal articles.

Frankly, I’m dumbfounded. Are they are figuring in the salaries of the faculty who do all the free work? That’s the only way I can come up with that math. The report isn’t on their Web site as of this writing, but I’ll be looking for it.

I’ll also be looking for its recommendations, since the author-pays model will not work for these disciplines (your tax dollars not at work!) and clearly something here is badly broken.

And maybe this number should be discussed by every tenure and promotion committee in the country. Couldn’t we make our decisions based on quality and significance rather than on quantity? What we’re doing now is hopelessly wasteful in every possible way.

Your ACRL Conference Planning Team

An enormous amount of work goes into planning the ACRL National Conference. No sooner does one end then the cycle of planning starts again for the next one. At ALA the 2011 conference planning committee had its first official meetings. We first met with members of the 2009 planning group for a debriefing session. Then we moved on to our first major task of identifying the conference themes and trying to come up with catchy names for them. Whereas the Seattle conference had five themes the Philadelphia conference will likely have seven. We think that will make it easier for those submitting proposals to more easily find a theme into which their idea fits.

At the end of the day loads of ACRL members will be involved in making the conference a success, from the many members of the planning committees to everyone who presents and participates. But the backbone of the conference is really three people. The chair of the conference committee and two ACRL staff members who somehow help us clueless members to pull this whole thing off. Here is your conference team for 2011:

alaconf2009
Your ACRL 2011 Conference Team

On the far left is Margot Conahan, ACRL’s manager of professional development, to the far right you have Tory Ondrla, ACRL conference supervisor, and in the center is Pam Snelson, Library Director at Franklin & Marshall College – and the Chair of the Conference Planning Committee for 2011. Together these three will lead the conference planning committee in organizing another memorable ACRL conference.